ABC’s Black Box premiered on April 24th with Kelly Reilly as the main character. Reilly plays Dr. Catherine Black, a brilliant neurologist, who suffers from bipolar disorder which is a chronic mental illness involving periods of mania and depression. The illness can have elated impacts on one’s mood, energy levels, and decision-making.
Those with this disorder are distinguished based on their intense highs and lows. Riley’s character is shown through the manic and depressive episodes of the illness throughout the show. The show refers to the brain as the black box, and Dr. Catherine Black is known as the curer of all neurological disorders while disregarding and hiding her own mental illness.
Catherine Black’s manic episodes conveniently occur when she’s away from work and the demands of the job. This show has brought on much controversy based on its portrayal of mental illness. Some questions I had while watching the show are:
- Is this a glamorized representation of mental illness?
- How accurate is the portrayal of Bipolar disorder?
- Can someone be in a 2-year relationship and hide their bipolar disorder from their partner?
- How can a neuroscientist hide their mental illness in the workplace without compromising their patients?
The creator of the show, Amy Holden Jones, grew up with a first hand witness to bipolar disorder. Her father was diagnosed with the illness and experienced the associated stigmas. When asked what sparked her inspiration for the show she answered:
“I’ve always wanted to get into the world of the brain, having personally lived in a family dealing with mental illness for a long time—I was 43 when my father finally died. In my era, with my father, there was so much secrecy. I never even had a conversation with him about his illness. We would live through his episodes and we’d never talk about them. He was very brilliant, high-achieving, worked 24/7 when he was younger. Then he had his first big breakdown at around 40. He finally began taking lithium and it made such a difference in our lives—but there are a lot of things I don’t understand. Looking back, I assume he had something like high-cycling mania. When I read Kay Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, I suspected maybe he sometimes stopped taking his medication. And I know, as a doctor, he often experimented with self-medicating.
In Kay’s book, I saw someone that had a full life, success and had mental illness. Black Box is not a show about bipolar; I only saw it as an opportunity to have a character that lived with it who had a full and interesting life. Because of my father, I did an enormous amount of reading about the brain always, people like VS Ramachandran, Steven Pinker, and Oliver Sacks, who was a big influence. What I took in most of all is that behavior is not the result of how your mother raised you, but the biology of brain you are born with. Our brains our built by our genes, just like our hair and our eyes and everything else. Read Full Article